Thursday, June 25, 2009

The long and the short of it

The backyard as meadow (or meadow mullet)
Dear ?
We apologize for our recent lapse in lawn maintenance. We know two and a half weeks of moderate spring weather can have an encouraging effect on the various species of flora that make up our lawn. Two and half weeks was the timeframe given us by the small engine repair shop where we took our languishing 10yr old mower to be serviced after it putt-putted to a halt on its first outing of the year. During that time we borrowed a high-end European-made battery-powered electric lawn mower from the neighbours two doors up, but because that mower was itself borrowed, sans recharging apparatus, our mow (but not our lawn), was cut short (ahem). Then, after a trying time of avoiding eye contact with passers by and attempting to appear extremely busy/preoccupied on every dash to the car, we confessed the cause of our furtiveness to our next door neighbour who that very evening mowed all of the yard visible from the sidewalk (short in front and sides, long at the back—a veritable mullet for the lawn). What neighbourly generosity! Front lawn mown, we took to holding our heads high and even greeting people as they walked by.

Friday, June 5, 2009

“Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!”

--Four Yorkshiremen

When Utilatub is your kitchen sink, you know the renovation isn't going according to plan

I know I sounded an optimistic note about renewing my blog posts, but a small change in circumstances has thwarted my plan. An unforeseen event has put our renovations on temporary and brief (I hope) hold. Since I returned from my latest trip to the EU, we’ve been without a kitchen sink, dishwasher, stove, and, perhaps most troublingly, even a kitchen floor! N’s last project was to replace all the badly chopped up joists in our kitchen (which had been riddled with new holes and gashes for every new plumbing, wiring, and heating project over the past hundred and thirty years) with new laminated joists. The new joists are in (it was a huge job I’ll write about later in the kitchen saga), but we are awaiting plumbing, gas, and electrical conduits, as well as a few other things, like reconciling the major difference in levels between different areas of the kitchen floor, before we finally screw down the subfloor.

When your pet loses his mind and begins ambushing you from above (or posing as building inspector)...

I’ve been doing the dishes in the laundry tub and finding creative ways to cook using the microwave, the barbecue, and a small butane powered single-burner stove. I thought the little pause might give me a chance to continue the kitchen renovation story up to this point, but I’ve been funnelling my creativity into life without floors/sink/stove. It’s a challenging Dali-esque environment we’re inhabiting now. I’ve scaled back my dreams a little. A kitchen sink?—Luxury! I can’t help but think of that Monty Python skit—you know the one: four well to do Yorkshiremen compare the hardships of their youth. The original was actually pre-Monty Python. See it here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Well of course there are REASONS for our long and unannounced trajectory away from the blogosphere.

Somewhere over the Atlantic

We’ve been away, for one, making six virtually unplanned cross-Atlantic flights over two months at the beck of both business and friendship--a little April in Paris, a few strolls along the lake in posh Geneva, a hike along the Polish/Slovakian border in the Pieniny mountains, an evening sipping Prosecco in one of Europe’s most beautiful squares in Krakow, the pleasure of looking at art and architecture, old and new, in and out of the EU, and many unforgettable meals, but also a stomach wrenching plummet into grief at the unexpected loss of a young and accomplished good friend—one of the best people anyone could ever hope to know. Things either so light as to dissipate instantly when I tried to catch them in words, or so leaden that they crushed my thoughts before I could write them. Nothing apropos at all.

One of those world-between-world intersticial airport spaces

I attribute our absence to existential imbalance. Plus inertia.

The YYZ tarmac--home

Now we are back on more solid ground (but not quite so solid floors). So, if you’re still with us, stay tuned for some harrowing renovation tales, lightened with the odd travel memory.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Tale of Our Multi-Year, Live-in Kitchen Renovation (Episode 2--fixing the brick column)

The kitchen layout between episodes 1 and 2

Between episodes 1 and 2 of the kitchen story, several years elapsed.

In the meantime, we

  • Decided to restore the layout of the house to something close to its original floorplan

  • Built a fully temperature and humidity controlled wine cellar (there’s no accounting for some people’s priorities)

  • Had extensive hardscaping done outside—new front porch steps, brick path, brick lined driveway, huge swinging gates, new fence, new crushed gravel paths etc.

  • Planted many trees and boxwood hedge on the property

  • Had all the asbestos insulation safely removed from the hot water pipes in the basement by a licenced asbestos abatement company

  • Removed the fluorescing and crumbling parging from the basement walls and had the whole thing painted

  • Began the master bathroom renovation, (still ongoing) which involved adding a new sewer stack to the house

  • Laid the groundwork for a hydronic radiant floor heat system throughout the entire house

  • Insulated several exterior walls with spray foam insulation

  • Re-fitted the laundry room with front loading washer and dryer, counter and storage cupboard

(some of these other projects will get their own blog entries later on)

When we finally turned our attention back to the kitchen we were determined to tackle the crumbling brick wall that we’d faced every day for years. Finally, N had a plan. After much thought and consideration of various solutions, N settled on concrete as the answer to neaten up the broken brick edge and provide structural support for the laminated beam holding up the second floor above the kitchen.

The process required

  • 8 bags of concrete
  • a rental cement mixer
  • custom bent rebar, and lots of additional rebar tied into a grid,
  • modular forms (made from some melamine coated ½” particle board sheets we'd had lying around for ages)
  • a noisy hand sander to produce a lot of vibration
  • a spray bottle to wet down the bricks and the form
  • spray foam to fill the gaps where the form met the rough wall to prevent the concrete from pouring out and compromising the forms
  • many power and hand tools and
  • a lot of effort

Concrete forms usually need to be coated in some kind of releasing agent so they don’t stick. Outdoors, there are all kinds of unpleasant and messy agents to choose from, but indoors, the choices are limited. The melamine particle board proved to be an ideal solution. The melamine itself was slick enough that we didn’t need any additional coating.

The process itself was involved, and proceeded in stages. It went something like this: we tied and secured rebar to the brick wall;

A blurry close-up of the tied rebar

we built the initial form from three pieces of precisely cut melamine board screwed together and attached to the wall with screws and spray foam insulation at the base of the wall;

The melamine forms secured to the wall

mixed cement,

N and my dad mastering the art of late-night cement mixing in the backyard--or how to lose friends and alienate neighbours

poured and troweled the cement into the form, tamped it down and used the hand sander to vibrate the form to get rid of any voids. Then we added to the form and repeated the process up the wall.

The prepped wall showing the rebar and the form about halfway up

Of course things became much more difficult as we approached the ceiling and ran out of room to pour the cement and get a tamper in from above.

Tamping down the concrete

I think we mixed and poured cement four times in total. After the concrete had a little time to set up, we removed the forms, misted the surface of the concrete with water to keep it from curing too quickly, and replaced the forms. We repeated this step several times while the concrete cured. When we finally removed the forms, the result was fantastic.

The brick wall that had disgraced our home for so long had a new perfectly square, concrete edge, dead straight and smooth. The heartbreak is that we’ll be covering it all up when we finish the kitchen.

The finished concrete column

The concrete column looks beautiful and would be perfect in a modern space or a loft conversion, but it’s pretty incongruous in our old Victorian. Still, I’ll enjoy it while I can (which, given our track record, may be longer than I want to).

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Tale of Our Multi-Year, Live-in Kitchen Renovation (Episode 1)

When we first toured our house with the real estate agent just over 10 years ago, our first impression of the kitchen was not good—almost a deal breaker. Entered through an awkward door crammed into a corner of the living room, the kitchen was a cramped grouping of three chopped-up little rooms (a small bedroom, which had once been a screened-in porch and which was to become our eating room, the very simple kitchen, and a full bathroom awkwardly located just off the kitchen in what had once been the back stairway to the second floor)—this awkwardness was a symptom of the 1940’s transformation of our house into a duplex.

The kitchen as it was (approximately) when we first moved in

Even at the time of that first viewing we had a dim idea that we could unify the rooms into one generous south-facing space spanning the whole back of the house. What we didn’t realize in our new home-owner enthusiasm was how time consuming and costly the renovation would be.

The exterior view of the window to door transformation

Our very slow kitchen transformation began almost five years ago when we installed a set of French doors to the backyard in the south wall of what we referred to as the eating room. The doors replaced a tiny one foot square window located high on the wall at the back of the closet. This door—appearing suddenly where no door had been before—unleashed a kind of mania in us. The new easy egress to the backyard inspired us to embark on a frenzy of outdoor cooking; the great new view of our not-so-lovely yard inspired us to plan elaborate gardens and imagine our future vista; the new flood of light in the tiny room inspired us to remove the wall between the eating room and the kitchen. The French doors were definitely the starting point. When they swung open for the first time, it was as though we had lifted the lid of Pandora’s box. Since then we have had some kind of project always on the go and order has yet to be reestablished.

The interior view of the window to door transformation

But, back to the kitchen wall we removed. Luckily for us, some investigation revealed that the wall was not a bearing wall. It turned out that the external double brick wall that had separated the eating room (once an exterior porch) from the main house had been replaced by a big laminated beam decades earlier.

A view of the laminated beam holding up the second story of the house

Removing the wall did give us a much more open space but also revealed the protruding broken remainder of the brick wall on which the laminated beam holding up the second floor of our house rests. The brick wall appeared to have been removed with a sledge hammer leaving an uneven, crumbling, broken edge.

The problem of the broken brick wall

We were flummoxed by that wall for years. When our little nephew came to visit us, he would look at the wall and then at us and sadly say “This isn’t good. This isn’t safe.” Our kitchen was labled the “so-ugly kitchen”. Consultations with stonemasons and bricklayers were not satisfactory. Eventually we tackled the double-plus-ungood wall ourselves. But I'll save that story for episode 2.

Monday, January 5, 2009


I have decided to declare a single New Year’s resolution. But don’t be fooled, this is a resolution that contains multitudes.

I resolve in 2009 to master the art of manageable list making. Like others, I make lists I never keep, lists I seldom even refer to once made. This year I hope to become adept at making lists of tasks that are actually feasible, lists of things I may actually accomplish before the list itself is a distant memory.

On the surface this may not seem to have much to do with our house, but it will. Our next post will pertain directly to home’s on the list.

Of course, just because I’m going to make practical lists doesn’t mean I’ll stop making the big dream lists—the ridiculous, implausible, random lists of ideas and projects and goals, the lists to spill my dreams onto—just to see how they look on paper.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

Table for two featuring our beautiful new dinner plates from ceramicist extraordinaire and Nova Scotian, Jim Smith

Last night we decided we would stay in and cook an ambitious dinner for two chez nous. We took our inspiration from the New Year's Eve menu emailed to us from our favourite, but at 2000 km away, inaccessible, restaurant Fleur de Sel in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. With chef Martin Ruiz Salvadore's menu in hand we devised a slightly simpler one for our own cozy dinner party.

hors d'oeuvre
fresh Oysters
(beausoleil and raspberry point)
warm Gougères

First course
Oysters Rockefeller
Gosset Champagne

Second course
Bibb lettuce Salad with Roquefort dressing

Main Course
Butter poached Lobster
Fennel Risotto with Lobster essence
Gosset Champagne

Chai infused Panna Cotta
Ginger Crisps
Mandarin Oranges
Muscat Beaumes de Venise

Before the real preparations began, we whipped up a batch of pâte à choux from the truly excellent coobook Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan. The pâte à choux with the addition of gruyere would become a plateful of gougères, lovely golden puffs of pastry to eat between sips of champagne or Ricard. We met gougères for the first time in Champagne, France and were smitten forever. Now we can make them ourselves.

Making gougeres--in its sweet incarnation pâte à choux is the basis for profiteroles. The leftover savory version with gruyere cheese for the gougères, above, made a wonderful pizza crust for lunch today

First thing on New Year's eve morning we raced out to pick up two fresh lobster and oysters for our main courses. We needn't have worried. Our fishmonger, Caudle's Catch had received an early morning delivery to meet the demand. The place was incredibly busy. Even with lower lobster prices, our two magnificent lobsters, 2 1/2 lbs apiece, were still a pricey indulgence.

One of our magnificent feisty creatures

N bought a lobster knife and yesterday acquired the new skill of shucking an oyster. I can do it too, but why when it's so much more fun to eat them? Before the main cooking event, we shucked our little oysters and ate them plain.

N shucks oysters, beausoeil and Raspberry point varieties, with newly acquired skill and aplomb

So, after taking care of any pre-supper stomach rumblings, we set to the real work of cooking. Our big new technique of the day, aside from Oyster shucking, was butter poaching lobster. On a previous trip to Nova Scotia we had indulged twice in butter poached lobster and are now haunted by the memories. Meltingly tender and sweet lobster served out of the shell is indescribably good. Apparently the butter poaching technique was pioneered by Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Bouchon. Thanks to the myriad bloggers working their way through Keller's cookbooks, and a fantastic explanation of Beurre Monté (the surprisingly simple butter and water emusion used as the poaching liquid) on the Food and Wine website here, and the printed recipe for Keller's lobster "Mac and Cheese" published in Veranda magazine (June 2008), we had many sources of reference for our own version of butter poached lobster.

The barely-cooked lobsters emerge from their two minute bath

The secret, apparently, is to cook the lobster gently by submerging it in just boiled water for only two minutes. We then brought the lobster out of the water, pulled off tails and claws, and resubmerged the claws for an additional five minutes. Then we removed claw and tail meat from the shells and refrigerated it on paper towel until poaching time. We removed the heads and tomalley from the remaining carapaces and made a rich lobster stock in the usual way with onion, celery, and herbs, which we used for our risotto.

Beurre Monté--the luxurious poaching emulsion of water and butter kept just below boilling at180 to 190 degrees
Today we discovered that the leftover lobster infused poaching butter makes for decadent hot popcorn!

Before the final ta-da, I'l descibe the Oysters Rockefeller of which their are so many versions it is hard to know the definitive one

The characteristic flavours of Oysters Rockefeller: anise, watercress, parsley, shallot, Pastis

The restaurant that is said to have originated the recipe, Antoine's of New Orleans guards it to this day. Our version was lovely with the fresh and aromatic flavours of fennel, watercress, shallot, pastis, and fewer breadcrumbs than seem to top many of the versions I saw on the web. The recipe we followed loosely is from the New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne, recipe here .
We learned that large oysters are best for Oysters Rockefeller, in fact, the larger, the better

The aromatic green purée is spooned over the oysters, nestled on a bed of rock salt, and spread to the shell edges before cooking in a hot oven

Oysters Rockefeller--delicious.

Finally, our main course, butter poached lobster and fennel risotto

Happy New Year Everyone!